Never-ending story 

Controversial home on Bitterroot continues to languish

Back in December 2007, Tom and Charlotte Robak were ordered to halt construction of a high-end estate along the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. The couple had already spent an estimated $700,000 on the property. Ravalli County officials claimed the structure was going up not just in the river’s floodplain but in the floodway, an overflow channel that can fill up during high-water events. The Robaks promptly sued the county, sparking a contentious and protracted legal battle.

“The placement of a home in the floodway is of significant concern to everyone,” then-Deputy County Attorney Alex Beal wrote in a letter to the Robaks’ attorney in 2008. “Not only is there great probability of the Robak house becoming inundated with flood waters, but there is the possibility the home could wash down stream and destroy other property.”

Ravalli County ordered Tom and Charlotte Robak to halt construction on their streamside home in 2007, claiming it fell within the Bitterroot River floodway. The house remains unfinished today, and sits at the center of a nearly five-year-old legal battle. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Ravalli County ordered Tom and Charlotte Robak to halt construction on their streamside home in 2007, claiming it fell within the Bitterroot River floodway. The house remains unfinished today, and sits at the center of a nearly five-year-old legal battle.
Five years and countless hours of courtroom haggling later and the Robak house still sits unfinished on the banks of the Bitterroot southwest of Darby. The case is scheduled for another status hearing Dec. 13, at which point Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht says the parties will continue to iron out a number of unresolved regulatory issues. Recht says the hearing is just one more minor step on the road to resolution.

The Robak case has grown particularly nasty at intervals, with both parties exchanging barbs not just in court but on the pages of local newspapers. The Robaks have accused county officials of tampering with case files, and District Court Judge Jim Haynes has alluded to a greater agenda by the Robaks to challenge the validity of state floodplain laws. But both parties managed to reach something of an understanding this May; the county agreed to drop its counterclaims of public nuisance and punitive damages after the Robaks agreed to drop their own claims of defamation, negligence and violation of due process.

The issue that neither party has firmly addressed in the past year is the status of $116,458.80 in outstanding sanctions against the Robaks ordered by Haynes in 2010. Haynes wrote that the Robaks had “sponsored misleading affadavits” and “made affirmative representations that no fill was brought to their property.” The county subsequently had to enlist “a platoon of experts and professionals” at significant expense “to bring Robaks’ misrepresentations and misdeeds to light.” The sanction includes compensation for county staff time as well as depositions, transcripts and $10,215.14 for soil testing. Such sanctions are typically imposed to preserve the integrity of the legal system and deter frivolous legal pleas.

“Robaks hold the privilege of a citizen to decline to apply for a floodplain permit,” Haynes wrote in his July 28, 2010 order. “However, citizens have a duty to comply with the locally enacted floodplain laws. Citizens have no right to come into Court and misrepresent material facts regarding their willful non-compliance with the existing floodplain laws and regulations.”

The Robaks’ lawyer, Dustin Chouinard, filed a motion to reduce those sanctions in October 2010. That motion has yet to be resolved. The sanctions were not included in the May settlement, and Recht says he doubts the matter will come up during this week’s hearing. Recht says the county is currently focusing on resolving regulatory matters.

Even if Haynes’ sanctions do stand, County Commissioner J.R. Iman says he would be “surprised” if the full dollar amount is strictly enforced. Personally, Iman believes the prosecution was “a little over aggressive.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it needs to go away,” Iman says of the case, which began the same year he first campaigned for office. “I think [the sanction] is kind of a ‘pound of flesh’ situation.”

Iman also suspects former Ravalli County Attorney George Corn’s dogged pursuit of the case played a role in Corn’s loss to current County Attorney Bill Fulbright in the 2010 election. That election saw a rash of Republican victories by conservative candidates who proved popular among anti-zoning advocates.

Tom Robak has certainly been active in anti-zoning circles over the years. He spoke out against a countywide growth policy in 2008, believing it would negatively impact real estate values and local jobs. He also founded the Big Sky Coalition in 2007 with the primary intent of promoting increased logging in the Bitterroot Valley, though the group was briefly active in opposing a streamside setback ordinance as well.

The Robaks attempted to secure a permit from the county last year to remove a gravel bar and stabilize the riverbank upstream of their home, which is about 80 percent complete. The application went up for public comment last month and is still being reviewed.

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